Mitigating the squash effect: sloths breathe easily upside down

Rebecca N. Cliffe, Judy A. Avey-Arroyo, Francisco J. Arroyo, Mark D. Holton, Rory P. Wilson

Abstract

Sloths are mammals renowned for spending a large proportion of time hanging inverted. In this position, the weight of the abdominal contents is expected to act on the lungs and increase the energetic costs of inspiration. Here, we show that three-fingered sloths Bradypus variegatus possess unique fibrinous adhesions that anchor the abdominal organs, particularly the liver and glandular stomach, to the lower ribs. The key locations of these adhesions, close to the diaphragm, prevent the weight of the abdominal contents from acting on the lungs when the sloth is inverted. Using ventilation rate and body orientation data collected from captive and wild sloths, we use an energetics-based model to estimate that these small adhesions could reduce the energy expenditure of a sloth at any time it is fully inverted by almost 13%. Given body angle preferences for individual sloths in our study over time, this equates to mean energy saving of 0.8–1.5% across individuals (with individual values ranging between 0.01 and 8.6%) per day. Given the sloth's reduced metabolic rate compared with other mammals and extremely low energy diet, these seemingly innocuous adhesions are likely to be important in the animal's energy budget and survival.

  • Received February 23, 2014.
  • Accepted March 28, 2014.
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